He enthralled the fans around the world like very few did. He would hit a six just for fun and fans.
If fan following was a yardstick of greatness in cricket, Afridi would have topped the charts. Always. The manner in which people come to watch a glimpse of his batting was unheard of. Once he gets out, they leave the stadiums as if there was nothing else to watch.
His rise was as sudden as it was stupendous. As a 16-year-old boy who was with Pakistan Under-19 team touring the West Indies — a visit marred by charges of rape on one of his team-mates Zeeshan Pervez. Just when the police was investigating who else were involved the team manager Haroon Rasheed got a SOS to send a leg-spinner to the other corner of the world, Kenya.
Pakistan, playing a tri-series involving the hosts and Sri Lanka, were hit by injury to Mushtaq Ahmed. Came Afridi, played and conquered. Then captain Saeed Anwar watched him hit the ball so powerfully in the nets that he decided to use him as opener. A 37-ball century followed with 11 powerful sixes, against then world champions Sri Lanka.
Greatness was destiny for Afridi as he played that innings with maestro Sachin Tendulkar’s bat, presented to another great Waqar Younis.
Naturally Afridi became an instant hit, more so with his native Pathans who just know one way to live: attack. The desire to see him bash the bowlers to all corners was never ending. The crowd in Peshawar — the land of Pathans — created a scene when little known Everton Matambanadzo dismissed Afridi off the first ball, shouting: “Try ball, let Afridi bat again!”
Girls swooned for a glimpse of him and many wanted to marry him. In 2004 two women came in bridal dress to a ground and were only convinced to leave after meeting him face to face.
It was always fun watching for fans, albeit reckless for his coaches or captains. He would never held himself back, evident from his 351 sixes — the most by any batsman in one-day cricket.
His hit-all style was copied in every street, every ground and every backyard in Pakistan. Afridi’s superstardom on the field made him the face of Pakistan off it, and his likeness is plastered across billboards and TV ads everywhere in the country.
With his unmatched popularity Afridi became a product. He advertises everything from shampoo, banking and skin cream to chewing gum, with a ubiquity surpassed perhaps only by Tendulkar and, may be now by Virat Kohli, in India.
The most striking aspect of his batting was that he played his way, never daunted by opposition, bowlers or by the pitch. Former captain and one of his early days team-mates Ramiz Raja recalled one incident. “When I went to bat in an international match I asked him about the pitch and his reply was typical.
“I don’t know about the pitch, its enjoyable. The ball is coming onto the bat very well, you will also enjoy,” was Afridi’s reply.
Although a quality leg-spinner, Afridi will not be remembered as a bowler. His 395 one-day and 97 in Twenty20 (most in the shortest format). Nobody would have bought a ticket if told that Afridi will only bowl in the match.
Just like his batting, Afridi’s style in press conferences was mostly hard hitting. At the fag end of his career, as he struggled to score runs and take wickets in Twenty20 cricket last year, part of Pakistani media was having a got at him. So when a reporter asked him “how he could justify his place,” Afridi retorted, “its a filthy question, next.”
He ruffled many a feather by saying “I get more love in India than in Pakistan,” before the World Twenty20 started in India last year, but that simply came from the heart as he had been one of few Pakistanis who was loved across the border.
His aggressive style had also resulted in a number of bans which forced him to miss some crucial matches, significantly the first two in 2007 World Cup in the Caribbean. Incessed at a fan after walking to the dressing room at Centurion, Afridi threatened to hit him with his bat. He was handed a four-match ban, last two in South Africa and the first two in the World Cup.
Two years earlier he shocked everyone by trying to damage the pitch during the Faisalabad Test against England. It resulted in one Test and two ODI bans.
But the worst of them all was a balatant attempt to chew the ball to alter its condition during the Perth ODI in Australia in 2010. A ban of two Twenty20 ensued.
But all said and done, Afridi has been a star, a crowd puller who graced cricket field in a way very few could boast off. He will surely be missed. His popularity and aggressive style will demand him to join politics.
He will, one day and change the fate of his country.